Sunday, January 27, 2013


It's impossible to know a country in seven days. It's even more impossible (can something be more impossible) to know a people in seven days.

While in Panama we went out as much as we could and when we had a good tour guide they would fill our travelling time from location to location with not only facts about the country but with little insights from their own lives

That's how you learn about people, form their own stories.

This day was our last day in Panama and it was our getaway day, we would be on our way to the airport by 1 pm. Oh yeh, it was also New Years Eve. Collette had woken up with a bit of a cold so she decided to nap while I went for one last stroll around the resort, which comprises most of the video.

It was the hottest day so far in Panama so of course, I kept myself cool with a few margharita's .. by 10 am

But I didn't really want to discuss my nascent tropical alcoholism, I wanted to post some final thoughts and impressions of Panama.

Here are a few of our favourite memories from this amazing little country


It means Red Devil. And it refers the the traditional buses of Panama. The country has a very good road system, it's where the Pan American highway essentially end. Compared to Costa Rica and Belize the highways are quite good. The bus system is very good. You can go pretty much anywhere in the country by bus and it's fairly cheap. Traditionally the buses they used were big old school buses, not all comfortable from what I understand but quite something to look at.

The Diablo rojo's are painted in bright garish colours, traditionally by their owners and often reflecting that person's point of view, from politics to pulp culture to politics. It was though the colourful and personalized artwork could make up for the rough ride.

These buses are often being replace now by more modern, comfortable buses and the school buses are more often being "wrapped" in some form of advertising rather than being custom painted, but the rojo's are still rolling and they were something that gave us some flavour of Panama's personality


As we were being driven around the country we kept noticing something odd: Mannequins, full sized dolls, put out by the road. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, fully dressed and made up. A few were superheroes, I saw a Reagan, most I would learn later they were local celebrities and politicians
For instance, here is the president of Veneziela and his companion

We couldn't figure out what this was all about until it was explained to us: The puppets are made by locals and put out as part of the New Years celebration, they are usually put out a week or so before. The dolls are stuffed with fireworks and on New Years Eve they are set up; you can drive up and down the roads and watch these hundreds of dolls blowing up. Unfortunately we flew out of the country before we could witness that but I just loved this idea.


The situation with the canal is a fascinating one. For a long time, a hundred years, the fate of this country revolved around something over which it did not even have control. The French began the canal, the Americans finished it and they controlled it for a long time. It's only been about 15 years that Panama has had total control of the canal and thereby, it's own destiny.

One our tour guides phrased it as Panama being one of the newest countries on earth. Columbia controlled Panama before the canal, and it wasn't the French of the Americans it was like dictators like Noriega. Now Panama rules the canal, and rules itself. The striking skyline of Panama city is one byproduct of these events, very few of the skyscrapers are more than fifteen years old

It's fair to say that the destiny of the country is tied to the canal. They are building a new one, new sets of locks, to accomodate larger ships. They are building a new airport, subway etc. In the country it looks like life is unwinding the way it has for a very long time. People live off the land, they follow old traditions; they enjoy health care and education that stems from the canal but at this point I don't know if they see the future the same as do those in the city.

Tourism is playing a larger role as well, particularly eco tourism. Panama still has a large amount of protected rainforest and beaches. Will that continue as the need to industrialize continues? I can't say, but when I think of Panama I will recall warm sand under my toes, warm ocean water over my head, the sound of the forest, the feeling of a water fall on my back, and smiling young women selling me home made candy from a road side stall.

Here's the video

Monday, January 21, 2013


Today's trip would be a half day trip. It would take us north, into the mountains of the El Conte region. We were heading for Yaya Falls or as I liked to call them Yes Yes Falls .. damn, I am so incredibly funny.

At any rate our route took us up into the mountains on a incredibly winding roads. We'd done similar trips in Costa Rica, along narrow gravel trails and over wooden bridge where you could look back and see the planks rippling behind you... Panama boasts the best roads in Central America and they could very well be right. Windy and steep but well paved, though I imagine in the rainy season they would be more challenging. The vistas provided, however, were worth the trip

Our first stop was in the Cocle region where we saw the place where two rivers, Rio Colorado and Rio Blanco, converged. These are known as the Red and White rivers and they meet here, mingling the different colours of silt that give the rivers their names

From there we travelled to the area that contained today's featured attraction, Yaya Falls. Our guide book had described the tour as "a hike" More accurately, it was a "climb" but not a climb up a mountain trail but rather climbing steep, sometimes slippery stairs.

Stairs. What the fuck is it about Panama and stairs. At the DeCameron there were over 60 stairs to get down to the beach. Now here we were in the mountains and there were stairs to get to the falls. But worth it I suppose. Before we got to Yaya itself, we stopped at another waterfall where water had split in two this massive boulder formation

We continued the torture, I mean the stroll, up and down the stairs until we reached Yaya Falls themselves. The falls were nice, not the highest I've seen (I've been to Iceland) but at the base of the falls were the largest and best examples I've ever seen of metamorphic rocks. In the video, you'll see these huge rocks that almost look tiger striped.

I enjoyed swimming in the ocean at the resort but I have to say, it was awesome to be in fresh water. Our Panamanian guide told us the water would be freezing cold, well perhaps for her, but us Canadians just called "like home"

After paddling about in the Falls and scaring the locals, we got back on the bus. Our guide was from this area of Panama and she was great at pointing out a lot of interesting things for us. She explained that the locals here originally constructed their houses of a combination mud and water and straw, a little bit like adobe and some people still used this method to build little houses and outbuildings

One more stop before the hotel: A town who's major industry is making candy. To that end, they had several stalls on the highway where you could buy fresh made sweets at a discount price. We indulged. Well, duh

Then back to the hotel, back on the beach with Traveller in hand, and the end of another awesome day in Panama

Here's the video

Saturday, January 19, 2013


"I want to see animals, at least one day in Panama, I want to see animals"

That's what my baby told me and what my baby wants my baby .. er .. um ... OK well this she could get.

Our fifth day in Panama saw us return to the Lake Gatun area. This lake was created in the 1900's by damning the Charges River .  It was originally a valley and in the dry season, when the water level is low, in some places your boat drifts through the tops of trees. That was not the case when we were there but there are many mangrove islands of very thick rainforest, so dense it helps keep the water in its place.

These little islands did provide us with some life forms, very quickly we found this sloth take a nap up in the trees. Earlier when I did my zipline adventure we saw sloths in the rainforest but it was in very thick foliage, this one was right out on some bare branches.

Our next animal encounter was with this baby cayman sitting on a log with his mouth agape. He was either regulating his body temp, waiting to be fed, or yawning after watching an Antiques Roadshow marathon.

It was interesting, we were on this huge lake but the islands are so close together and so thick, the mangrove and trees so high, it felt more like the channels of the Charges River that we had been on the day before. It's kind of ironic; Panama is surrounded by three oceans but were spending most of our time on fresh water.

These animals were cute but hey, let's not be coy, we were going to Monkey Island. Spotting wildlife, even in protected sanctuaries, is never a sure thing. The monkies are protected here but it isn't a zoo, they're left to fend for themselves; they are not skittish of human intrusion but our guide informed us that they were unpredictable; some would come out for a bananna while others would go deeper into the brush. Luckily for us, a troop of howler monkies were having brunch as our boat drifted by

We also saw a couple of spider monkies. I am good with this monkies, they are fine wild citizens of the world. Unlike the Devil's monkey, the White Faced Capuchin monkey; I'm glad we did not see one of those, there was no priest on board to perform the exorcism

Before we returned to the mainland we were taken to a larger island for a lunch break. There were kayaks you could use and they set up a dock with rods and fishing tackle where it seemed easy to catch yourself a nice bass. We decided to explore the forest a little. This is what is termed as dry rainforest but we were just at the end of the rainy season; it was comfortable down by the water but as we went into the thick jungle the humidity crept up on us like a sentient weight.

Back ont the boat and back to the mainland. We get on a bus here for t he day's next visitation. As we waited to board, Collette found more wildlife, this time in the form of a few pelicans, there are lots of them in Panama and you often see them around the places where people convene, much like the iguana .. oh no, winged iguanas!

Our next stop in our quest for animals was the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, just outside Panama City. It has some 300 animals but Collette were equally impressed by the grounds themselves. Not only were they well maintained, but they really showed off the deep biodiversity that this small country enjoys. Like these bamboo, which towered some 30 or 40 feet over our heads

When we had visited neighbouring Costa Rica years before, you couldn't move without coming across a croc. We had not found any in the wild of Panama so it was nice to visit one in the zoo .. and especially nice with a wall between us

If one does not find a croc beautiful, Collette took some other pics that may suit you better

And of course, she always seems to know hot to get zoo animals to give her just that perfect pose

It was time to go back to the resort. During our time in Panama the impact of the Canal is always obvious; for a while it virtually kept the country endentured as the Canal was run by the US and then a series of dictators. Now it is the nation's primary source of income. But there is more than that. The legacy of the Canal is seen in many ways. On our way back to the hotel we passed a huge cemetary, a monument to the Chinese workers who toiled and died to make the Canal. Every cross represent 100 Chinese workers who died building the Canal. There are other monuments of course, representing other peoples and other countries.

A good day, a long one, we were happy to get back to our hotel room only to find that the resort was enacting some kind of cost sharing program. Turns out we'd have to take on a new roomate ... Well, she wanted to see animals

A note on the video: Normally I use Vimeo to upload my videos then I embed them here. I like the quality of Vimeo and they never give me any bullshit about copywrite as Youtube is prone to do so. However, Vimeo has a weekly upload limit and these Panama videos are stretching it just a tad. So I used Youtube for this one. The quality still isn't where I want it and it may be pulled or limited due to copywrite, but at any rate here it is. As always, I reccomend viewing it full screen. Click on the gear at the bottom of the video window and set it to 720, I have no idea why this isn't the default, but that is the native quality

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Our next excursion in Panama was reccomended to us by Collette's brother Dennis and his wife Kay who had visited the country a few years ago. They had visited a national park where the Embera, one of Panama's native peoples, live in a manner representative of their pre-colonial past.

Our tour would stop at a local supermarket so we could buy a tribute for the Indians (that's the word they use, you don't like it, may I suggest a warm receptacle into which you may insert your over educated politically correct supercilious attitude) in the form of dry goods, primarily rice and beans. Not really a payment (that was provided by the tour company) but more in lines like bringing a gift of tobacco when you visit the home of a North American Native.

Kay suggested that we also bring special gifts for the kids, like toys or candy. She told Collette that she (Kay) had bought such gifts at the dollar store, so Collette ravished a local dollar store here and we lugged the goodies all the way to Panama .. what Kay had meant, it turns out, was to visit the dollar store beside the supermarket in Panama.

Oh well, Canadian dollar store merchandise is special .. yeh right.

Our journey to the Indian village of Parara Puru began on the banks of the Charges River that eventually spills into Lake Gatun which we had visited the day before on our transit of the Canal

Our mode of transportation on the river were long wooden dugout style canoes, yes they had outboard motors but they were pretty traditional canoes, I think the plank seating though was installed for the sake of us tourists

Before we went to the village, our Indian guides took us down a twisting narrow tributary of the Charges River. Thick rainforest climbed on either side of us and we often just skimmed under twisted overhead branches. On our way we encountered some indigenous wildlife .. in the form or some local teenagers finding a solution to the heat

On our way to the village our boatmen took us down a particularly narrow channel with high rock cliffs on either side. We could hear the waterfall before we saw it but getting to it was not easy. From the dugouts we made our way up a narrow slippery rock path that was a bit challenging for me gimpy foot but the end product was worthwhile.

While some of our fellow tourists played in the falls, Collette and I did what we do best, take video and shoot photo's

After hanging around the falls for a while it was off to the village. The story of Panama's native peoples is nothing new or unique in Central American or pretty much anywhere in the world. They've had their lands appropriated, their language and culture curtailed, generally disenfranchised. With no excuses made, a big problem here is that Panama has served a lot of masters in its history, from the Columbians to the French to the Americans to dictators like Noriega. It really has been less than 20 years that the country has been an independent democratic nation free to carve its own destiny. Part of that is trying to give back their native peoples some sense of self; to that end, they've been brought back to their lands that are now on a national park. I suppose it's an uneasy and imperfect situation: In order to maintain and promote their cultural identity, they have to do so in front of us tourists

The situation is a compromise, living in the park gives them the freedom to promote their traditional lifestyle, both to themselves and to tourists. We learned about some of these traditional ways,  how they used local plants for dyes and how they used coins as part of their ceremonial outfits, much like Canadian Native fancy dancers incorporate metal bells for their own attire.

We were able to wander around the village and observe some of this traditional life. The women prepared lunch for us, fried tilapia and plantain chips that was one of the best meals we would eat in Panama. The food was cooked over coals and the women displayed a really effective technique; they had four huge logs the points of which were pushed together and smoldering, as the logs broke off into coals and hot ash they would push the logs together, keeping the head going and allowing them to have a bed of very hot, and consistently hot, coals on which to cook.

While we waited for the Indians to gather for a performance of music and dance, Collette decided it was time to dispense her presents. Originally we were told not to give out candy, the native community is fairly isolated and getting kids to the dentist is a chore. We were also told by the chief that he was not happy with the idea of giving them toys; he did not want the children to get in the habit of begging. We respected that but Collette worked her magic and the chief relented: And Hurricane Collette was loosed. This a natural phenomenon that occurs when my girl comes into contact with a mass of children; language barriers crumbled and soon Collette was surrounded by a storm of children as she handed out the candy.

At first the older kids were hanging back and being all cool but then she broke out the toys; toy airplanes and those little parachute guys got everyone involved, including some moms who appeared to be teenagers themselves. Collette had some Superballs and began firing them off the hard earth and nothing but chaos ensued. You can check it out in the video.

I'm surprised that Collette did not create an international incident. Like Costa Rica, Panama does not have an official army. But she seemed to create a Panamanian air force.

Now it was time for the performance. The women came out first, dancing around the longhouse in a long circle, chanting and clapping their hands to keep the beat. At certain points they would come together in a tighter circle and seemed to do a "trade off" kind of song where each woman took turns leading the chant. We both fell in love with this little girl who clearly was still learning the moves, swinging her arms wide, crouched over, but she lacked in grace she made up for in enthusiasm.

After the first dance, the men came out but they did not dance, instead they played their instruments, a series of drums and a wooden flute. The women continued to dance and also pulled out some of the tourists from the audience

Before we left the village we decided to do a little shopping. The Embera had laid out several tables with a large variety of handicrafts. One of the things that Collette wanted to buy was a wooden flute. They ranged in design and in price. She selected one that sold for 15 dollars then the Chief came over and whispered in to the vendor's ear; he selected another flute, much more expensive and let her have it at the original price. I think this was the Chief's way of saying Thank you for the joyful encounter she had had with the children.

The Embera had not only given us one of our best meals of our holiday but one of our more memorable excursions. And several others informed me that thanks to Collette, an encounter that none of them would soon forget.

Here's the video

Sunday, January 13, 2013


AOK kids, here is your pop quiz for today (and no the answer is not Soda, go see the Principal)

If you go to Panama you must:

A:  Visit Manuel Noriega's former mansion

B:   Pee your pants on a zip line

C:   Be intoxicated before 9 am

D:   Go see the canal

Well by Day Three we'd already scratched the first three off our list, so that left us with C: Be intoxicated by 9 am .. no, I mean, go see the Canal

A full transit of the Canal takes you from the Pacific to the Atlantic and even for a small craft such as a sail boat, costs tens of thousands of dollars and pretty much takes a day. We were going to do a Partial Transit, going from the Pacific side, through 2 of the 3 lock systems and ending up on Lake Gatun, a enormous body of fresh water created for the canal.

We began our trip just outside Panama City

Shortly as we got underway we met up with a small boat from the Canal Authority. As required by law, the pilot of our cruise boat could not take us through the canal, only a specially ticketed canal pilot can dot hat. That is true of any vessel that goes through the Canal

With the new pilot aboard, we cruised along the Amador Causeway where we saw a building with a Toronto connection. Panama's new Museum of Biodiversity has been designed by local architect Frank Gehry the (ahem) genius behind the Crystal the (choke) beautiful and (cough) progressive addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Even our tour guide suggested that perhaps Mr Gehry was having one over on the people of Panama

On our way to the first locks, we passed under one of the two beautiful bridges (there are three in total but we see only two) that span the canal. The Bridge of the Americas was completed in 1962 by the US and was considered an integral part of the Pan American Highway

Crossing the Canal is an expensive endeavour. For the largest ships currently allowed in the canal, called Panamax ships, the expense could run to 400,000 dollars for a passage. For some a more economical alternative is offload their cargo on one end of the canal and ship it by train to the other end. To that end, we passed a lot of giant cranes designed to pluck containers from ships and deposit them on to the trains

We soon approached the Miraflores locks a two stage lock system that would raise our boat up to about 54 feet in total. The length of the locks are about 950. Our boat would fit in there were two other vessels but only one Panamax container ship can fit in the lock at the same time
Once in the lock we were pulled against the wall and lashed to in order to prevent us from being pushed around; our boat was big but the water coming into the lock can be that violent. We were about to be raised up 27 feet, displacing something like 26 million gallons of water ... in eight minutes. In my video I use a time lapse but I didn't speed up the video by all that much. If a small vessel is not secured, it will spin around in the lock like a top.

All of this is basically by gravity, using a technology that is over 100 years old. Very things have changed in the locks since they were built in the 1900's. Back then large ships were guided into the locks by mules, today the "mules" are electric machines but not much else has changed. The giant lock doors were not welded together, that technology did not exist back then. They used thousands of rivets to give these massive doors their strength.

After passing through the second stage of the Miraflores we made our way out into the Gaillard Cut. This is a seven and half channel actually cuts through the continental divide, the only place on Earth where this has happened. There were a lot of big Panamax ships in this relatively narrow channel. Traffic was not particularly heavy so ships where able to pass in both directions but when there are a lot of Panamax ships, the Cut is so narrow they restrict them; so that for half a day only westbound ships go through, for the other half only eastbound ships

Passing through the Cut we could see where they are working on a new channel and a new set of locks that will accomadate Super Panamax ships, even bigger than the ones that currently use the Canal. It's a massive project, one of several underway in the country. They're also building a new international airport out by the Decameron Resort and Panama City's first subway.

On our way the Pedro Miguel locks, we passed under the beautiful Centennial Bridge. We got to know this bridge pretty well during our stay but mostly we drove over it

We passed through the single Pedro Miguel lock which put us out onto Lake Gatun. This is a huge body water created, through damming, to provide the Canal with all the fresh water that gets the job done.

After having gone under the Centennial Bridge we drove over it now to go back to the DeCameron. Collette was a bit disapointed that we didn't see any wildlife on this excursion (aside from birds) so a local iguana rectified that for us

Here's the video
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